MOSCOW — Senior Russian officials have admitted publicly for the first time that rebel forces might push Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, in a sign that Moscow may be preparing for the defeat of its strongest ally in the Middle East.
"One must look the facts in the face," news agency Ria Novosti quoted Mikhail Bogdanov, deputy foreign minister, as saying. "Unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out."
He said the Syrian government was "losing control of more and more territory" and that Moscow was preparing plans to evacuate Russian citizens if necessary.
Also yesterday, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, was reported as saying he thought the Syrian government was nearing collapse. His comments came as a car bomb in the restive suburbs south-west of Damascus killed more than a dozen people, the state news agency and opposition activists said. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.
Syrian government forces fired Scud missiles at rebel groups in recent days, according to the US and UK governments, in a move that represents a considerable escalation in the country’s civil war. Syria denies the use of Scud missiles.
Russian experts said Mr Bogdanov’s frank admission did not, however, presage a change in Russia’s policy towards Syria nor would Russia rethink its opposition to United Nations (UN) sanctions against Damascus.
"It does not change anything," said Yevgeny Satanovsky, head of the Moscow-based Institute of Near Eastern Studies, an independent think-tank. "Since the very beginning there has always been the possibility that Assad will lose his position, why not? It does not change the principle.
"It will not change the Russian position in the UN, and it will not change the Russian position in relation with our western colleagues because we do not protect Assad, we do not protect the Ba’ath party regime, and we do not protect any regime."
Moscow insists its opposition to sanctions and foreign intervention in the conflict is rooted in a pragmatic vision of protecting secular regimes in the Middle East, and should not be seen as direct support for the Syrian regime, its oldest and strongest ally in the Middle East.
"In Libya, we and the Chinese kept our hands on the table, and it brought us what it brought us. Lynching of Gaddafi, genocide of the Gaddafi tribe, and at the end, the death of the American ambassador and radicalisation of the whole area," said Mr Satanovsky.
"This gave us a clear understanding — if the secular states of the Arab world become part of some Islamic caliphate, then the next place the Islamists will operate will be central Asia, and the Russian Islamic territories.
"We do not need a caliphate in the Volga region and northern Caucasus, thank you very much."
Georgy Mirsky, a specialist on the Middle East at Moscow’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations, agreed that Russia’s position on Syria would not change, even if Mr Assad is seen to be losing.
But he said this was due to domestic political considerations.
"If Assad loses power in a struggle, then (President Vladimir) Putin can say, ‘Well, we tried, but we weren’t strong enough to defeat the West’. But if he is seen to surrender Assad, then he will be seen as a loser. And he cannot be seen as a loser."
The attacks over the past year have spread fear in the capital, where people are now braced for a showdown between regime forces and rebels who are pushing towards the heart of Mr Assad’s power.
Some analysts argue the alleged Scud salvo might have been an exploratory step leading — in the absence of an international response — to missile strikes on Aleppo and the possible use of chemical weapons later on. "We are near the end of the escalatory ladder," said Joseph Holliday, senior analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. "Now we have the Scuds, there is only one step left, and the thing is, there is nothing we can do about it right now."
The alleged Scud attacks also raise questions about whether a combination of rebel attacks and possible shortages of parts and fuel are helping neuter Mr Assad’s feared air force.
The regime has since the summer used warplanes and helicopters as one of its main weapons, as it has tried to drive back rebel advances into areas where it can not or will not send ground forces. But that air power advantage has been steadily eroded as opposition fighters have used seized and smuggled supplies of surface-to-air missiles to bring down some aircraft and deter others.
"I definitely think it is an indication of the degradation of the Syrian air force," Mr Holliday said.